The film Wadjda, directed by the Saudi female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, had a simple premise: it’s the story of an eleven year old Saudi girl who wants a green bicycle. It couldn’t get any simpler than that. Yet, this film moved me like no other ever had, and the reason was simple: I could relate.
I, too, grew up in a Muslim country. I, too, wanted a bicycle my entire life. Now in my thirties, I am deeply ashamed of the fact that I don’t know how to ride a bicycle, and wonder how many other adults in America can relate. I had a tricycle when I was a small child, the kind that you ride with your feet touching the ground. Once ready to upgrade into a big-girl two-wheel version, I was given excuses instead of answers: what do you need it for? Walking is better for you anyway. Here is a girly doll instead, as tall as you, look how pretty! I was never given the reason as to why I couldn’t have a bicycle.
One day, when I was in high school, I did an informal survey among my classmates to see how many of them knew how to ride a bicycle: out of thirty three girls, only two knew how! One who had lost her dad (read: no male authority figure) at a young age, and one whose mother was European (read: open minded). The rest of us would have been clueless had we found ourselves in a dangerous situation and our only means of getting away was a bicycle. Granted, I am referring to a scene from a movie I have seen, but still, what if?
I think riding a bike – an adult size one – is a skill that everyone should have by the time they’re an adult, not only because of the possibility of the scenario above actually happening, but for the freedom that I imagine only a bicycle could offer, and of course for the health benefits. I get so jealous when I see someone riding a bike. I see it as a privilege that most people take for granted, while billions of Muslim girls around the world have to fight – and lose for the most part – to get a bike.
You’re probably wondering why. Why are these Muslim girls not allowed to ride bicycles? Here is the story that I was told later by female friends: the myth in some Muslim countries is that riding a bike will break the hymen. The precious virginity would be lost. The girl would be labeled impure. If you know anything about Muslim cultures, then you know how precious virginity is to these girls’ male relatives.
It is true? Does riding a bicycle break the hymen? No, of course not! Some of the men in these Muslim countries just don’t want us to have any freedom. Riding a bicycle would mean freedom; it would mean girl meets world. It would mean that her innocent eyes would get to see what’s happening beyond the walls of her golden cage. It would mean mixing with men. And who knows what else the girl will ask for when she grows up: cigarettes, alcohol, birth control pills? The risks are simply too high for some of these men to take.
I am being sarcastic. Well, sort of.
In recent years, I have asked my father about not having a bicycle growing up. I wanted to know his reasons for denying me something that’s so basic when he gave me so much. He promised that he doesn’t remember anything about it. My father had to raise a lot of children and was the sole bread winner, so I do believe that he didn’t mean to deprive me of that privilege. He was also into cycling; we’re talking high tech bikes, proper gear and many competitions, and he was an orphan who was raised by an open-minded European Catholic man, so I chose to believe that it was an unfortunate oversight. I did forgive him. He’s an amazing father, but I do tease him about it every chance I get.
Recently, a friend of mine visited me at home and saw that I have a bicycle. She also saw a helmet and some elbow and knee pads sitting right by it. A couple of days later, she offered to teach me how to ride, stating that her daughter would love to learn with someone else.
Her daughter is ten years old.
I politely declined.
But make no mistake: I will learn how to ride a bicycle if it’s the last thing I do. I have tried the cigarettes, alcohol and birth control pills already.